Last week while discussing Equal Pay Day with a friend, she commented, “Why all these special designations? Black History Month, then Women’s History Month, now a day for Equal Pay. I don’t see the point.  Do you?”  Many share her perspective, but I am not among them.

This year Equal Pay Day fell on April 8th.  All month the airwaves, print media  and blogosphere have been filled with commentary of one sort or another: Data documenting the continuing wage gap for female and minority workers; analyses disputing the size of the gaps, conservatives insisting they support equal pay but not government regulations; advice for women on speaking up on our own behalf, often as if women’s lack of negotiating skills were the root of the gender wage gap.  For me, this heightened coverage is exactly the point.

Special months, weeks or days provide “news hooks”, important opportunities to recall forgotten history and celebrate hard won gains.  They are also reminders of how much work remains undone in the struggle for equity and justice.  Forty years ago as one of the thousands who wore little green ‘59 cents’ buttons, I understood it would take years before equal pay for equal work was a reality.  I recall telling friends we needed to be realistic. After all, we’d need good childcare, shared household responsibilities and more career options for women in addition to fair pay laws. It might take thirty years to do away with unfair wage disparities.

How foolishly optimistic of me!

The White House cites U.S. Census Bureau figures on full time workers revealing that on average women are paid 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. In the Wall Street Journal economists Mark Perry and Andrew Biggs argued that this gender wage gap is a myth when variables such as career choice, marital status and education are factored in. Disagreements over the size of female/male earnings differentials can obscure the debate but they cannot deny reality. No amount of disaggregation of the data by region, race, education or occupation changes the basic picture. The wage gap differs depending on the variables used in each analysis, but economists at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research report that women in almost every line of work are paid less than their male colleagues.

Those who insist the wage gap is tiny and that a few cents on the dollar is of no major importance live in a protected world of savings accounts and salaries that leave extra dollars at the end of each pay period.  It is a world unknown to most of those in households struggling to shelter, clothe, feed and educate families with earnings at or below the median annual income of  $50,000; And it is a world unimaginable to the  one quarter of U.S. households with annual incomes below $25,000.

But what about governmental regulation so feared by those opposing the Paycheck Fairness Act?  The Act, first introduced in  2009, would require employers to show that wage differences are based on factors other than sex and contains a provision prohibiting retaliation against employees who discuss their salaries with co-workers.  But how can anyone determine whether she or he is being paid equitably without knowing the compensation others in similar positions receive?  Shouldn’t each of us be able to speak freely about our own salaries without fear of retribution?  Isn’t that called freedom of speech?

We’ve made progress.  Pay gaps have narrowed. But we’re already a decade beyond my 1970s estimate of the years it might take to achieve full pay equity.   We need effective legal redress for employees whose paychecks are unfairly shortchanged. But as Frank Bruni wrote in the New York Times this past Sunday, and many feminists have argued for decades, legislation on equal pay is necessary but not sufficient.  Gendered expectations influence women and men, employers and employees. A broader and more widespread understanding of the ways gender roles and status differentials are maintained and reproduced is essential if women from all socio economic levels are to move forward.  (See for example the analysis in  C.J. Pascoe and Tristan Bridges recent Girl w/Pen post.)

Carrie Chapman Catt, an important strategist in the movement for suffrage and women’s rights once noted,  “No written law has ever been more binding than unwritten custom supported by public opinion.”  Public opinion polls show significant changes in the views of both men and women on a wide range of gender roles, including the importance of pay equity. But for the moment, ‘unwritten custom’ holds sway much of the time.

Equal Pay Day is not simply a single day.  Attention to the wage gap continues throughout the month, spreads across a wide range of media outlets and seeds conversations around the country. Widening the audience, increasing public awareness and broadening debate on issues of equity and justice help to shift, shape and strengthen public opinion.  Equal Pay Day is well worth the bother.